Clash of Symbols | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Clash of Symbols 

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Icarus

Teatro Vista

at the Chopin Theatre

Teachers often present Greek myths as a primitive people's explanations of natural phenomena--somehow children are supposed to think the culture that introduced mathematics and astronomy to the Western world also believed Phoebus got in a chariot every morning and drove the sun across the sky. It was years before it occurred to me that Greek myths--all myths--are elegant metaphors for the hidden ways the world works, never intended as literal representations of the truth. See how reliably the sun rises and sets? It's as if every day it were someone's job to drive it from here to there.

Making clear the distinction between literal and metaphorical is a challenge for most artists working with myth. Mary Zimmerman's best work succeeds because it's so unflinchingly nonliteral: of course life doesn't happen in and around a swimming pool; of course people don't die when all the sand runs out of a bag. When the line between reality and metaphor is blurred, the audience starts asking the wrong questions: "Since when is chocolate an aphrodisiac?" or "What do you mean, 'capture the sun'?" Magic realism, for example, has had to battle northern preconceptions that something can be magic or real but not both.

In Icarus, now receiving its midwest premiere, playwright Edwin Sanchez exacerbates these difficulties by working with two sets of myths. Unfortunately, each cautionary tale--the Greek one about flying too close to the sun and the Hollywood one about refusing to set when it's your time--makes the other look stagy, not only not literally true but actually false. The problem probably lies with the injection of Hollywood: we're too close to its myths, believing in them too strongly, for any to work as ironic metaphor.

The play's Icarus equivalent is Primitivo (a name evoking both simplicity and centrality), who suffers from an unspecified disability that keeps him in a wheelchair--except when he manages to limp spastically to the ocean, where he swims so powerfully that he's in training to capture the sun. His sister-manager Altagracia, the Daedalus figure, provides Primitivo with the means of achieving his dream and thus the means of his self-destruction. She devotes her life to him, regarding happiness as beyond her reach because of the leprous blotches on her face. But she soon becomes the girl in a boy-meets-girl scenario with Beau, a mysterious outsider in a ski mask who claims to be uglier than she is. Providing counterpoints to these three are fading movie star La Gloria, who sustains her belief in a beauty long vanished by seducing the two young men in turn, and Mr. Ellis, unpaid factotum to the brother and sister, whose senses of reality and humor are equally warped: his life partner is a stuffed cat and his luggage a suitcase full of dreams he'll happily slam closed on your hand.

If Sanchez had simply created a world where people try to do impossible things--where ugly people try to be beautiful and earthbound people try to grasp the sun and lonely people try to be loved by stuffed animals--he might have succeeded in evoking our actual world and the sadness inherent in these pursuits. Instead he chose to underline his concerns with icons from our pervasive secular religion, the movies. La Gloria can only be Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, the aged movie star who imagines herself ready for her close-up, while Primitivo's shedding of his robe for consequence-freighted swims recalls the suicide of James Mason's has-been screen idol in A Star Is Born. Though the playwright restricts himself to Hollywood accounts of "suns" and "stars," he loses control of the symbolism.

The addition of Hollywood myth draws our attention from Primitivo's struggle to the lovers' dreams. Movies are writ so large in our collective consciousness that they tend to blot out everything else; allusions to them cause us to judge characters' behavior according to familiar filmic "reality," a central tenet of which (in the words of comic novelist Dori Carter) is that life consists of beautiful WASPs having sex. To invoke this notion in regard to characters who are all physically distorted in some important way doesn't cause an audience to rethink its expectations--it merely disappoints them. Instead of the high drama of classical myths, we get the melodrama of whether boy gets or loses girl, or whether the has-been will make a comeback, or whether the one who goes out an untried youngster will come back a star. And melodrama produces distance from characters rather than identification with them.

Sanchez's dueling mythologies stymie the best efforts of Teatro Vista's able actors, designers, and director. Their earnestness and conviction come off as naivete--yet their take on the material is not quite simple enough to bring the audience along for the ride. There's enough contemporary reality to interfere with the fictive dream but not quite enough to replace it.

Still, the company does its best with this flawed work. Director Edward F. Torres wrings every ounce of genuine emotion and comedy out of Sanchez's overwrought script, and he paces its intermissionless hour and 40 minutes with facility. Sandra Marquez gives a funny, intense performance in the pivotal role of Altagracia--the character is completely free of both vanity and self-pity. Marquez is well supported by Christopher Gausselin as Beau, Deborah Davis as La Gloria, and Marcus Castillo as Primitivo. Juan Carlos Seda is both comically weird and weirdly pathetic as Mr. Ellis, simultaneously Cerberus at the gates of hell (barking "I'm not staring! I'm not staring!") and Charon the boatman at the river Styx (so why doesn't his name begin with a C?). Robbie Hayes's scenic design, representing the ocean depths with overlapping layers of hanging clear plastic, provides exactly the right flavor of surreality. If only the play were as pitch perfect.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Art Carillo.

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